June 16, 2008

At-Risk List of Animals May Change

By Curtis Morgan, The Miami Herald

Jun. 16--Florida's wildlife managers are contemplating a fresh approach to the difficult business of deciding whether the West Indian manatee and dozens of other critters are endangered or threatened:

Let somebody else do it -- namely, the federal government.

In a move aimed at quelling a decade of impassioned debate over the status of the manatee and, by extension, the state's entire controversial system for ranking imperiled species, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission may stop declaring things endangered altogether.

Commissioners, at a meeting in Dania Beach last week, embraced staff recommendations that would divide the 118 species now on Florida's imperiled list into two new lists.

It would work like this: The state would adopt the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's endangered and threatened rankings for 59 federally listed species found in Florida, including high-profile animals such as the manatee and Florida panther. The FWC would then create a new, separate list for remaining animals not on the federal roll, such as the threatened Florida black bear. Those species might all wind up designated by a single catch-all phrase such as "vulnerable."

The seven-member commission agreed the state's current system had become too confusing to the public -- and the battles over where animals belong on the list too tangled in politics and emotion -- particularly when it comes to the manatee.

"We need to get away from the imbalance of attention [being] on what to classify a species rather than on how to protect them," said Commissioner Kenneth Wright, an attorney from Winter Park.

Environmentalists generally supported the recommendations, which could take a year to turn into a formal draft proposal.

Laurie MacDonald, Florida director of the Defenders of Wildlife, called the idea of adopting the federal list promising.

"We think it simplifies the process, it harmonizes the process and it's an understandable process to citizens and scientists and agencies," she said.

Boating and development interests, for the most part, reserved judgment. For years, they have pressed the commission to knock the manatee down from "endangered" to the less-severe status of "threatened" as surveys showed the creature's population growing thanks to the existing network of slow-speed boating zones.

But John Sprague, chairman of governmental relations for the Marine Industries Association of Florida, believes the commission is bowing to political and public pressure instead of following science. State biologists had recommended lifting the manatee's "endangered" tag. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also found last year that the sea cow population had stabilized to the point they could be upgraded to threatened on the federal list, though it has not recommended that step.

"Basically, what they're doing is ducking it," Sprague said. "Down-listing in Florida was part of the manatee management plans. Now we have the plan but not the down-listing."


In December, the state's imperiled-species system was left in limbo when the state wildlife commission backed off the controversial move to down-list the manatee after Gov. Charlie Crist echoed environmentalists' concerns about uncertain population assessments and rising deaths from boat strikes.

Instead, the commissioners adopted a manatee-management plan, and ordered staff to review manatees and the imperiled-species system, which was approved in 1999 over environmentalists' objections.

The commission adopted statistical standards used by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but also tweaked categories: for example, what international standards consider "critically endangered," the state calls "endangered." Environmentalists say that misalignment weakens wildlife protections.

Elsa Haubold, who led the state Wildlife Commission's internal review, said there was strong support to adopt the existing federal listing, a step the staff believes could clear up much of the confusion and reduce the controversy.

Forty-three species are on both the state and federal lists but not necessarily at the same at-risk ranking. The red-cockaded woodpecker, for instance, is federally endangered, but only a "species of special concern" in Florida, the least-severe level. The federal list also includes 16 species not on Florida's list at all.

The commission ordered its staff to explore using three potential systems for the state-only list.

The first two could result in a single statewide classification -- "You're either on the list or off the list," Haubold said -- that would allow the state to focus more on creating protection plans for many species that now get little attention.

Jessica Koelsch, a program manager with the Ocean Conservancy, said environmentalists would want the state to retain its "species of special concern" category, a level the federal system does not include, and test any new formula to ensure species now on the state list aren't dropped.


But she echoed the agency's desire to resolve the seemingly endless battles over the manatee and the listing process. "We have to get out from under the conflict and the winner-loser dichotomy."

Haubold said one lesson the agency had learned from the decade-long manatee controversy was the need for a simple process the public can trust.

"We have learned that if we don't have public support," he said, "our system is not going to work, not matter how good it is."


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